A French force

A French force

Opinion piece (Prospect)
01 March 2007

Nicolas Sarkozy's call for a "rupture" with France's past makes him an exciting figure. In the last five years—during stints as chairman of the Gaullist UMP party, finance minister and interior minister—he has proved himself a hyperactive and effective politician. If anyone is capable of shaking up France's sclerotic economic and bureaucratic systems, it is probably the Gaullist candidate for the presidency. His star appeal is undeniable. At a chaotically organised election rally in London in January, so many French exiles came to hear him that several thousand people (myself included) were left on the street outside. His message to those who did get in was simple: France must change in order to attract back the young and enterprising.

Sarkozy's book is a series of disconnected anecdotes, musings and proposals. He recounts how he pushed through difficult reforms as a minister, how he plans others as president, how he countered the slanders and schemes of his enemies, and how his relations with both Jacques Chirac and Cécilia—Sarkozy's briefly estranged wife—are really much rosier than people imagine. Sarkozy presents no political philosophy, merely stating that his interpretation of Gaullism, in contrast to that of Chirac, is that France needs unceasing reform.

Such an unintellectual book has, predictably, earned scorn from the bien-pensant left bank elite. Despite 30 years as an activist on the right of French politics, Sarkozy remains an outsider—with a father from Hungary and a Jewish maternal grandfather from Thessaloniki. He never attended one of the grandes écoles. But not being from the establishment only enhances his appeal, and this book has sold more than 300,000 copies in France.

Sarkozy seems little interested in the wider world, mentioning other countries mainly as examples that France should learn from. In the 1970s, he points out, Britain was 25 per cent poorer than France, and now it is 10 per cent richer. But he offers no real analysis of why France's economic performance has fallen behind that of its peers, or what structural reforms are needed to arrest the decline. He would like to relax the rules of the 35-hour week, and implores the French to work harder. To his credit, he says that neither globalisation nor the EU is to blame for France's problems, and that neither prevents the government from dealing with them.

However, Sarkozy has little to say about the overbearing role of the state in the French economy; the difficulty of reforming France's antiquated public sector, given the conservatism of the trade unions; or the hire-and-fire rules that deter companies from creating jobs. If he thinks that France needs to foster a climate of entrepreneurialism, he does not say so. He seems unaware that France is home to some of Europe's best-managed and most dynamic companies—even if some of them stay profitable only by shifting production abroad. At least he confronts one fundamental weakness of the French economy: the second-rate higher education system. He bristles that France's best-performing university is 46th in the University of Shanghai rankings. The reforms he proposes are sensible, including the liberation of universities from central control.

When Sarkozy does write about the nitty-gritty of economic management he reveals himself to be much less of an Anglo-Saxon liberal than he (and his foes) sometimes make out. He is strongly opposed to foreign firms buying French "champions." He complains that excessive foreign investment has weakened the French economy and caused too much decision-making to be shifted abroad. He recounts how, when finance minister, he stopped the Swiss Novartis from buying Aventis, a French drugs firm. He also insisted on bailing out the engineering company Alstom—despite objections from the European commission—to prevent Germany's Siemens from buying it.

He says that European economies cannot survive on services alone, and that the French government should foster "strategic" industrial sectors. He is upset that "in ten years, 9,000 French companies have been taken over by foreigners, whilst only 650 foreign companies have become French." He wants France to learn from the relative economic success of Britain and the Nordic countries, but he does not seem to understand that their success is partly the result of the openness that he would deny France.

Perhaps Sarkozy's scant attention to many economic issues merely reveals his reluctance to scare off potential voters. The Socialists' (and Chirac supporters') best argument against him is that he is scary. A friend who runs a small hotel in Paris told me recently that he hoped Sarkozy did not win, "because he wants to turn us all into Americans."

Something else about which Sarkozy writes little is the problem of integrating Muslims into French society. Although he called banlieues rioters "rabble," he is no mere populist. He abolished the "double punishment" law under which non-French citizens coming out of prison were automatically deported, and has breached a French taboo by calling for positive discrimination in favour of ethnic minorities. He mocks the absurdity of the law preventing the state from collecting statistics on ethnicity, and thus knowing if particular groups suffer problems of unemployment, health or education.

What is most refreshing about Sarkozy is his iconoclasm. He wants more power for the parliament to balance that of the president. He says the French have overdone their insistence on speaking their own language in international organisations, and have lost influence as a result. He calls on the French not to demonise the US, and praises its mobility —but reassures them that he is horrified by the American welfare and health systems. Given that Jacques Chirac has pushed realpolitik to the limit in cosying up to the Russian and Chinese regimes, Sarkozy's promise not to ignore human rights in dealing with those countries is welcome.

He says little about Germany: instead of the Franco-German duo he wants a club of the big member states to direct the EU. Unusually for a French politician, he admits to admiring much in Britain, including the strength of its parliament and its ability to generate employment. British readers, however, may be struck by the parallels between Sarkozy and another diminutive outsider who loved France profoundly, who had unlimited energy and mass popular appeal—and who came from Corsica.